In the wake of allegations that Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) engaged in unwanted sexual activity with the teenage daughter of a donor, Democratic leaders in the House quickly called for an ethics investigation. Others called for Wu's immediate resignation from office. On Monday there were reports that Wu would not seek re-election, but would not resign either. Wu issued a statement calling the allegations, published in The Oregonian, "very serious," but did not confirm or deny the report.
To find out how Democrats might deal with another sex scandal just a month after the resignation of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), we spoke with crisis management specialist Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, in Washington, and author of the books Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business and Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.
Corey Dade: Should House Democrats handle this differently so soon after the scandal involving Anthony Weiner?
Eric Dezenhall: Every case like this is different. There is a tendency to view them as a dogma, that there's a right way and a wrong way to handle them. That's just not true. It would be sort of like saying no matter what your illness is, use Calamine lotion.
I think the problem with the Weiner situation is there was proof. You handle a situation where there is unequivocal proof quite differently than a situation where there is not.
Quite literally, unfortunately, the American legal system has become about entertainment and punishing witches. It's not about truth and justice anymore. So when you have a famous person facing allegations, the media-Internet-political-legal apparatus is all ginned up to only to convict.
There is automatically an assumption of guilt here. So what is somebody in the House going to do, say we shouldn't have an ethics inquiry? Of course, they are going to say 'we should look into this.'
Dade: There were already signs of trouble for Wu. He cited mental health issues and already had two primary challengers for a potential 2012 reelection bid. How does this change the advice for him, and for House Democratic leaders who may try to nudge him out of office?
Dezenhall: Well, the picture of him in the tiger outfit [which he acknowledged sending to staffers earlier this year] doesn't help. This is a 'Where there's smoke, there's fire' situation, which gives the Democrats a pillar to stand on [in urging him to step down]. And he hasn't denied being troubled.
Dade: How would you advise Pelosi and the Democrats to handle this?
Dezenhall: I see no risk to them in suggesting an inquiry. But to the target of the investigation, it's ruinous. Investigations destroy people's lives.
Where they are going to have to be careful, though, is going beyond that because we don't know the extent to which the accuser has been vetted. Which should always be an issue because accusers lie. Now, I don't want to say anything about this accuser because I don't know the case.
What you've got is a rather serious claim. But I'm in a business where people make serious claims against my clients all the time. A lot of times it's for money; sometimes it's for vengeance. The public has a hard time believing people make stuff up, but they do.
But [House Democrats] don't want to be responsible for killing the career of a colleague because this was just there but for the grace of God... If you're a member of Congress, you're only one stroke of bad luck away from an allegation about you. That's what was so interesting about the [Sen.] Larry Craig scandal. The [Senate] Ethics Committee didn't proceed aggressively because a number of people on that committee were facing issues of their own.
Dade: Why do some scandal-plagued politicians resist calls to resign?
Dezenhall: The good news about resigning is you knock it out of the news, like [former New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer and [former New Jersey Gov. Jim] McGreevey did. The bad news is you're out of a job. Resigning in disgrace has baggage that staying in office doesn't have.
What factors in the calculations is 'Is this survivable to the end of a term?' And if it looks like it may be, staying in office and letting it fade away is different than resigning in disgrace. So, you're better off if you stay.
The thing is that the subject of the crisis is usually 10 steps behind the rest of us in realizing what's going on. It's very different on a psychological and biochemical level to come coolly to grips with the fact that your life, as you know it, is over. That's the problem I have with clients — and one of the reasons I represent corporations and usually don't represent individual clients — people don't dispassionately just go 'Yeah, my life is over. That's fine.' No, they do something quite different. A lot of the problems you have are protecting a client from himself. They often want to go out there and say 'These things aren't true.'...Some enzyme kicks in and they don't see themselves as lying, when the rest of us do.
I just think it's a psychological thing with people. They can't look at themselves as at fault because they need denial to get through it. It's like Bernie Madoff when he said 'I'm not a bad guy. I just did a bad thing.'
Dade: Is there any way these latest scandals become a broader election issue that Republicans could use to their advantage?
Dezenhall: I tend to doubt that. This may be an issue on the local level, where this election is held. But I'm not sure that it is plausible to conclude that a wide swath of voters see Democrats' sexual behavior as a viable issue, especially since Republicans have had their share of issues.
Dade: What allows some politicians to survive scandals and others not to survive? Where is the line for when a politician should resign?
Dezenhall: There are a few variables. One variable: Are there optics? Do we have proof shoved in our faces? Going back to Gary Hart, you had a contrast between his complete denial and the [incriminating] photograph.
There's a reason for 'you have the right to remain silent.' When you don't have data thrown in the public's face, you have the ability to tip toe your way out of it.
Then you have the issue of likability. Bill Clinton is a lot more likeable guy than Anthony Weiner. Anthony Weiner was not popular with his friends (fellow House Democrats). So, do people want to defend him? During the Clinton scandal, I wrote a piece saying he is going to survive. He survived for the same reason that beautiful women don't get speeding tickets. People get away with stuff.
And a third variable is what I call the hypocrisy variable: what we've learned about you at odds what we thought about you. So, when we have Eliot Spitzer prosecuting people and it turns out he was committing a crime, there's no where for him to go. With Bill Clinton, we all knew what he was. So when it turned out that's what he was doing, we all said 'Oh, well, yeah, we know how he is.'
I think people can imagine a powerful person having an affair. But when you're emailing and sending photos on Twitter, that's harder to accept. That's off the grid. I think people have a harder time forgiving behavior that's off the grid.
Dade: Can Wu or Weiner rehabilitate his image and thrive again in public life?
Dezenhall: From a PR perspective, there are few corrective measures once a scandal like this gets started. The system, the vortex, only goes one way, which is to destroy. The only way you get vindication is through the courts or your personal life. The media just isn't inclined to redeem.